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Highland Park suspect charged with murder as community mourns

A flag hangs at half-staff as investigators gather in downtown Highland Park, Ill., on July 5. (Ashlee Rezin/Chicago Sun-Times/AP)

HIGHLAND PARK, Ill. — The 21-year-old accused of opening fire on a Fourth of July parade in a Chicago suburb planned the attack for weeks and used a legally purchased military-style weapon to kill seven and injure more than 30 people, police said, in the latest mass shooting to shake a traumatized nation.

Authorities charged Robert E. Crimo III with seven counts of first-degree murder Tuesday but said there was no definitive motive for the rampage, which left this tranquil city of 30,000 reeling as it mourned the dead.

Crimo had acquired five firearms in 2020 and 2021, said Christopher Covelli, a spokesman for the Lake County Major Crime Task Force, including the semiautomatic rifle he allegedly used to fire more than 70 shots into the crowds gathered to celebrate American independence. He attempted to conceal his identity by wearing women’s clothing, police said, and initially eluded capture by blending in with those fleeing the gunfire.

At a news conference near the parade route, Eric Rinehart, the Lake County state’s attorney, pledged to pursue justice for the victims and called for a ban on assault-style weapons.

“All of the people who died steps from here lost their freedom — all of it,” Rinehart said. “We must do more as we think and reflect upon their freedom.”

Highland Park is home to a sizable Jewish community — and several of those killed were Jewish — but Covelli said there was no information yet to suggest the violence was racially or religiously motivated.

The victims identified by authorities ranged in age from 35 to 88. They included Jacquelyn Sundheim, a staff member and preschool teacher at a nearby synagogue; Nicolás Toledo-Zaragoza, a doting grandfather who had recently returned to Highland Park to be closer to family; and Kevin and Irina McCarthy, the parents of a 2-year-old boy.

On July 5, the Highland Park shooting suspect was charged with seven counts of murder with more charges expected in the coming days. (Video: Neeti Upadhye/Reuters)

President Biden ordered flags to be flown at half-staff at public buildings and military posts in the wake of the shooting as “a mark of respect for the victims of the senseless acts of gun violence perpetrated on our Independence Day.”

Monday’s carnage marked the 15th time this year that four or more people were killed in a shooting in the United States, according to the Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit that maintains a database of incidents of gun violence. It was the 309th time this year that four or more people were shot.

The attack will reignite a polarized national debate over how to prevent mass shootings, with Democrats demanding stronger gun regulations and Republicans adamant that access to weapons is not the issue.

Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) said that Monday’s shooting should spur federal authorities to action on gun control. “We have to get rid of assault weapons, high-capacity magazines” and enact many other “common-sense reforms that wide majorities of Americans are crying out for,” she said.

Duckworth watched video recordings of the shooting, which show terrified people fleeing amid the deafening crack of rifle fire. “The last time I heard a weapon with that capacity firing that rapidly on a Fourth of July was Iraq,” said Duckworth, who lost both legs in the Iraq War when her helicopter was shot down. “It was not the United States of America.”

By contrast, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) demurred when asked Tuesday if further steps were needed. He pointed to the bipartisan measure passed by Congress last month that allowed for enhanced background checks for gun buyers under 21, a modest change that marked the first tightening of gun regulations at the federal level in decades. The bill also provided funding for mental health services and school security.

The shooting in Highland Park is “another example of what the problem is,” McConnell said. “The problem is mental health and these young men who seem to be inspired to commit these crimes. So I think the bill that we passed targeted the problem.”

Crimo had two prior run-ins with law enforcement, police said, both times in 2019. In April, a person called the Highland Park police to report that Crimo had attempted suicide. Police officers spoke with Crimo and his parents but there was “no action to be taken at that time,” Covelli said.

Five months later, a relative reported that Crimo had threatened to “kill everyone” in his family. While the police removed 16 knives, a dagger and a sword from his home, there was no probable cause to make an arrest and no complaints were signed by any victims, Covelli said.

The Highland Park police notified the Illinois State Police about the incident, but at the time Crimo did not have a state gun permit that could be reviewed or revoked, a state police spokeswoman said.

Crimo was apparently known online as “Awake the Rapper” and attracted a modest following for his amateur music videos posted on YouTube and tracks posted on Spotify.

Some of the videos included ominous imagery. One shows a computer-drawn image of a figure wearing what looks like tactical gear and shooting a rifle, while one person kneels and another lies on the ground. Another clip shows a person appearing to be Crimo wearing a helmet and vest inside a classroom next to an American flag.

Crimo’s parents released a statement through a lawyer who said he had been retained to represent them. “This is a terrible tragedy,” it said. “Our hearts, our thoughts, our prayers go out to everybody.”

Police said that Crimo planned the attack and brought two rifles to the parade but left one in his vehicle. He climbed to the roof of a local business via a fire-escape ladder before taking aim at the people enjoying the parade below.

For many residents of Highland Park, the annual Fourth of July parade is a highlight of the year. Families arrive early to secure their favorite spots, setting up beach chairs along streets in the community’s quaint downtown.

Among those in the crowd was 88-year-old Steve Straus. Earlier in the day, he’d asked his younger brother: Do you want to go to the parade?

His brother wasn’t interested, but off went Straus, a financial adviser who exhibited the energy of someone decades younger, according to his niece, Cynthia Straus.

“He was a ‘seize the day’ kind of guy,” said Cynthia, an actress in New York. “He worked out every day. He was remarkably healthy. He went to the symphony.”

His family later learned he was one of those killed.

“He was devoted to his family,” Cynthia said. “And he never should have died this way.”

Randy Winters, 56, was watching the parade a block away from where the gunman opened fire. His wife had declined to join him for the festivities. After the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Winters said, she wasn’t in the mood to celebrate America.

Winters went anyway. In the moments before the shooting, he and a friend watched as students from the Highland Park High School marching band played a patriotic tune. “This is what it’s all about,” he told his friend, feeling content and proud. “America isn’t so bad after all.”

“I literally said that,” Winters recalled. “And then I heard boom-boom-boom-boom-boom. People were just screaming ‘Shooter!’ and running,” he said. “It sounded like he was right next to us.”

Karen Abrams found a hiding place in Country Kitchen, four blocks from the shooting. When she emerged more than an hour later, she saw a man walking away from the scene covered in blood.

“I asked him if he was okay,” Abrams said. “And he said, ‘It’s not my blood, but I don’t know if I’ll ever be okay.’ ”

Annie Gowen, Danielle Paquette, Amy B Wang, Mariana Alfaro, Praveena Somasundaram, Andrew Jeong, Bryan Pietsch, Gerrit De Vynck and Mark Berman contributed to this report.

Guns in America

Mass shootings: There have already been more than 300 mass shootings across the nation in 2022. Such events have been on the rise in recent years, and a disproportionate number of shooters in the U.S. are young men.

Visualizing gun violence: These charts help show the the extent to which gun violence impacts people across the country.

Shootings in schools: Since the Columbine shooting in 1999, more than 311,000 children have experienced gun violence at school. Students (and teachers) that survive shootings face a slew of trauma and other challenges.

Regulation and law: Until the bipartisan Safer Communities Act in June, congressional efforts to significantly change gun policies had largely failed for at least a decade. The effectiveness of gun control laws is often debated politically — here’s what research shows.